Thursday, April 5, 2018

After 30 Years, the Photographs of Ray Flerlage Are Right Where They Belong


Me and Ray in 2000. Photograph by Marc Pokempner for the Chicago Reader.
My personal history with the photographer Ray Flerlage began 30 years ago at the Chicago History Museum (CHM). I was doing photo research for Donna Lawrence Productions and thought CHM would have a big collection of blues photos. They didn't. "You want Ray Flerlage for that," the archivist told me.

I called Flerlage. At first he wasn't cooperative. I learned later that he was depressed. I persisted and it turned out the attention and interest in his photographs was exactly what he needed. His renewed enthusiasm about his own work led, in 2000, to publication of his book of photographs and remembrances, Chicago Blues as Seen from the Inside. Lisa Day, a renowned film editor ('Stop Making Sense,' 'Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll'), discovered Ray's work while editing Martin Scorsese's Eric Clapton film, 'Nothing But the Blues.' Day was the driving force in getting Ray's book published.

My smaller contribution was with my own 1995 book, Blues Legends, which also featured Ray's photographs extensively.

With publication of his book, Ray learned that he had inspired an entire generation of young photographers, including Marc Pokempner, who took the one above. Ray had mobility issues and didn't like to receive guests at his South Side home, so I generally took him wherever he needed to go, such as book signings. For interviews he liked Valois, a modest Hyde Park restaurant also favored by President Obama.

Ray died in 2002. His wife, Luise, died one month later. Her nephew was responsible for the estate. I made some suggestions about the collection (the Smithsonian was interested), but eventually lost contact with him. Recently, I was delighted to learn that, in 2016, CHM acquired the entire collection of 45,000 images, shot from the late 50s through the early 70s, as well as Ray's papers. Sometimes things work out exactly as they should.

This coming Saturday, the museum�s first full-scale Chicago blues exhibit, 'Amplified,' will open and it is built around Ray's photographs. Joy Bivins is the curator. (The Chicago Tribune has a preview here.)

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